Originally Published: Ocotber 24, 2005
In television programming, says Survivor and The Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, "the creative endeavor is critical. It always comes back to creating great content that people like. It all relies on good and interesting ideas, but we shouldn't be so full of ourselves to believe we can reject the integration of advertisers' products into content, which is a necessary tool for the networks to remain profitable." In an exclusive interview with MediaVillage, Burnett responded to a growing litany of critics, reporters, and government regulators who suggest integration of marketers' products into content is somehow inappropriate.
"People's livelihoods are on the line," Burnett commented. "New media technologies like TiVo, video-on-demand, and IPTV are all real. They are reducing the captive audiences of TV networks and this will inevitably create more revenue pressures on the networks and producers. The best way to stem this flow of income is through integration, which helps them retain income. Companies need to make a profit and if the economics of the industry are requiring integration, the issue is how to organically and creatively implant it in the story."
Burnett argues that inappropriate and offensive integration will ultimately be rejected by both the public and by advertisers. "It's a free market economy. If you cross the line, the public will reject it. If it's not a relevant and creative opportunity for advertisers, they will not support it. In the end, commercial TV exists to sell products. It's not charity; we are making shows to sell commercials. To be honest, writers, producers, and directors are there to attract people to watch commercials. You cannot look at the purity and integrity of content without recognizing that reality. We need artists to create content that works, and these artists need to be reasonable about allowing products to be integrated. What does it matter if a show has a can of soda that has actually paid to be on the table?"
Burnett tells the story of his 12-year-old son, James, who watches most TV with the assistance of TiVo. "Isn't it great in a weird way that people who buy commercials don't care that we don't watch them anymore," James recently said to his dad. Burnett laughs, "in his mind, every kid in the country is skipping through commercials. He thinks, 'isn't it great they pay anyway?' I told him it's not great. Advertisers are not happy about it. They're worried. He thought about that and said, 'Oh, I get it. That's why in Survivor you put commercials of stuff in the show.' Out of the mouths of babes."
However, Burnett warns, "it's a mistake to create programming designed specifically for integration. Anybody who creates content specifically aimed at focusing attention on the advertising within a show will fail. The very thing that works is you are watching for the fun and enjoyment of the program, and hopefully staying through the commercial messages. Integration should seamlessly work and it is definitely a craft. I don't believe anyone should set down a path designed around integration as the first priority. In The Apprentice, integration opportunities just happened. We realized we couldn't always have lemonade stands. We were begging retail stores to allow us to shoot there free. When they began selling products, others suddenly started calling us."
Burnett adds, "in the end, the truth is anyone making TV shows who truly believes at least part of their function is not creating a place for ads is deluded. The networks need new ways of getting advertisers' messages to viewers and the networks are not our enemy. They pay the wages. They support the economy. We all work in commercial TV to assist companies in selling products."